Mustafa Suleyman, a cofounder of AI lab DeepMind—founded in 2009 and acquired by Google in 2014—is on leave “after ten hectic years.” The hectic years included winning man vs. machine contests in chess and go but losing truckloads of money for Google.
Suleyman sought to provide real-world uses for DeepMind’s AI, in medicine for example. But in the company’s partnership with Britain’s National Health Care service but its sharing of patient data was deemed illegal in 2017. Google decided, as of last year, to absorb DeepMind Health’s project into the company’s main operations, essentially dissolving the maverick group Suleyman had co-founded with Demis Hassabis and Stuart Legg. In the meantime, Suleyman’s team was supposed to find ways of making the DeepMind technology profitable by, for example, cutting Google’s data center cooling costs.
Suleyman has large aspirations. A former social activist, he believes “capitalism is failing society”:
“We need to do the hard, practical and messy work of finding out what ethical AI really means,” he wrote in a Wired op-ed in 2018, predicting that the study of the safety and societal impact of AI was going to be “one of the most pressing areas of enquiry.”
As part of Google’s acquisition of DeepMind, he and Hassabis even required that the company set up an internal ethics board to oversee AI work across all divisions.Jillian D’Onfro, “The Cofounder of Google’s Acclaimed AI Lab, DeepMind, Is On Leave” at Forbes
Google did try creating an external ethics advisory board, as DeepMind’s founders had wanted. But it shut the project down a week or so later, amid an employee-driven controversy over including Heritage Foundation president Kay Cole James and drone company executive Dyan Gibbens on the board:
The dissolution of the board is another victory for Google employees. Over the last couple of years, since the firing of James Damore, members of the search giant have mounted successful efforts within the company to enact change around the treatment of female employees, unfair and exploitative policies and practices like forced arbitration and contract labor, and participation in defense-related government programs. Last year’s Google walkout, which saw more than 20,000 employees protest the way the company protects male employees who sexual harass female colleagues, has led to an upswell in employee activism. Now, Google leadership tends to face substantial collective action around any hot-button topic the company finds itself embroiled in.Nick Statt, “Google dissolves AI ethics board just one week after forming it” at The Verge
It doesn’t sound as though the employees wanted ethical advice that they could not provide for themselves.
A 2018 profile of Suleyman tells us that his background is in philosophy and theology rather than science and that he “differs from many of today’s tech founders in that he genuinely seems to care about the welfare of everyone on the planet.” The profile shares some of his larger ambitions:
DeepMind’s not-so-simple mission is to solve intelligence and then to use that to solve everything else. The company is building complex algorithms that can learn for themselves using techniques similar to those seen in the human brain. Ultimately, it hopes to end up with something that works like an artificial hippocampus — the part of the brain that is mainly associated with memory, and long-term memory in particular…
“Building and applying general purpose learning systems combined our two different approaches. And after working in many different arenas — from government to think tanks and the charity sector — trying to tackle our most intractable social challenges, it was clear to me that we needed new institutions, creativity and knowledge in order to navigate the growing complexity of our social systems. Reapplying existing human knowledge was not going to be enough. Starting a new kind of organisation with the single purpose of building AI and using it to solve the world’s toughest problems was our best shot at having a transformative, large scale impact on society’s most pressing challenges.”Sam Snead, “Mustafa Suleyman: The liberal activist who cofounded Google’s £400 million artificial intelligence lab” at Business Insider
Even Google might not be nearly big enough for all that.
See also: Why is DeepMind in deep water financially